An American Editor

July 19, 2010

Repurposing Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores in the eBook Age

The consensus among the ebook seers is that in not too many years brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstores will cease to exist — all book sales will be online or wireless.

If B&M bookstores continue to look and act as they currently do, I think the seers may eventually be proved right. To save B&M bookstores, and possibly even traditional publishers, the bookstores need to be repurposed in the eBook Age. They not only need to be repurposed, but they need to change how they generate revenue.

I think it is safe to say that we are several decades away from an ebook-only world, assuming we ever reach that point. I believe we will never see a truly ebook-only world; pbooks will always be around, even if just as antiquarian throwbacks for social trendsetters. As I’ve noted before (see The Death of “Personality” in the eBook Age), I think pbooks will retain significant value to a significant segment of the book-buying and -reading public, especially among scholars (see, e.g., eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite and Can eBooks Save University Presses?).

There is also another consideration. When the next Stephen King novel is about to be published, everyone knows about it — the B&M store is simply a conduit for getting the book to the reader. But the same isn’t true when the next Shayne Parkinson novel becomes available (see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept for a review of her excellent series) nor is there an easy way to keep up with new releases of university press books, and these books — university press and independent authors — deserve the same exposure as the James Patterson books and need that exposure more than James Patterson books.

Repurposing of the B&M bookstore may be the way to aid independent authors, university presses, and small traditional publishers in the eBook Age.

Today’s B&M bookstores are blockbuster oriented and oriented toward the major traditional publishers. Except for local independent authors, indie authors and presses are not heavily stocked, and for good economic reason: they simply do not sell well enough to support the expenses of the B&M store. Perhaps instead of being corporate America bookstores, a cooperative of indie authors, indie presses, university presses, and smaller traditional publishers who currently struggle for bookstore shelving should be created to run B&M bookstores.

But if the Barnes & Nobles and the Borders chains are struggling, how can such a cooperative succeed? One way would be to act as fronts for print-on-demand (POD) pbooks and as a gateway to ebooks.

Yet this doesn’t address the new thinking that is required for indie bookstores to remain alive in the Internet age. Perhaps the answer lies in the creativity being shown by BookPeople, an independent bookstore in Austin, TX (see “At Camp, Make-Believe Worlds Spring Off Page”) and imitated by indie bookstores in Decatur, GA, and Brooklyn, NY. Although the idea focuses on a camping experience that involves using imagination and role-playing based on popular children’s books, there is no reason the options can’t be expanded. BookPeople’s Camp Half-Blood (based on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) had 450 available slots — and all slots were sold out within 90 minutes. Brownstone Books’ (Brooklyn, NY) Camp Half-Blood charges $375 per week for its Camp Half-Blood.

Using imagination is only a start. Perhaps indie bookstores could also become afterschool care centers for children or run tutorial programs. Let books become a partner in the enterprise rather than the dominant purpose of the enterprise. Doing so would give indie bookstores a new life and make them relevant again in the eBook Age.

If the indie bookstores banded together under a single associative umbrella, they could easily tap the creative talent of hundreds of bookstore owners and employees across the country and develop these competitive models that would repurpose the B&M bookstore and extend their lives significantly. But closer cooperation, which is the key, I think, to survival is tough to come by: people own their own businesses because they want to be wholly independent and it is difficult to think about giving up some control. I do not think another trade association is the answer; I think what is needed is a mix between the rigid top-down governance enforced by say a B&N corporate-structure chain and a franchisee relationship. Indie bookstores need to maintain individual character yet they also need to band more closely together if they intend to survive the eBook Age.

The true test will be whether indie bookstores, indie authors, and indie/university presses are willing to band together and whether they will cede some control in exchange for a future. If they are so willing, it will be beneficial to all book lovers as well as to the indies themselves. Although the creative ideas of indie bookstores like BookPeople can provide a small shot in the arm, I think there is a need to broaden the creativity pool. One idea — no matter how good it is — will not save the indies.

February 10, 2010

On Words: Mugwump

The political partisan divide gets deeper daily. The electorate can’t be counted on to vote in accord with their party registration. Politicians are increasingly nervous that if they do not tilt further to the left or right, they will not be electable. Interestingly, in today’s partisan politics being a centrist seems to ensure that one will not get elected to political office. Makes me wonder if we voters simply want to elect someone we can complain about.

But that aside, the issue today is one of mugwumpery. Can we fickle voters who have registered our loyalty as Republican or Democrat but then desert the anointed party candidate stake a claim to being mugwumps? The bumper sticker possibilities seem endless:

  • Make mugwumpery a daily rite!
  • When the impossible needs doing call a mugwump!
  • Mugwumps brew their own tea!
  • Mugwumps don’t like tea parties!
  • I’m more than a partyer, I’m a mugwumpian!

The sound alone makes me want to proclaim: Mugwumpery — today, tomorrow, forever!

Mugwump (n.) originally referred to an Algonquin chief (mugquomp); John Eliot used the word in his 1663 Indian Bible. Consequently, mugwump became associated with “an important person.” Over the years, however, it became transformed from serious to ironical. For example, in 1835, it was used as follows: “This village, I beg leave to introduce to the reader, under the significant appellation of Mugwump, . . . used at the present day vulgarly and masonically, as synonymous with greatness and strength.”

But it was the presidential election of 1884 between James Blaine and Grover Cleveland that gave mugwump its political meaning. Blaine, the Republican candidate, was disliked by a group of influential Republicans who announced their support for the Democrat Grover Cleveland. The New York Evening Post (June 20, 1884) wrote: “We have yet to see a Blaine organ which speaks of the Independent Republicans otherwise than as Pharisees, hypocrites, dudes, mugwumps, transcendentalists, or something of that sort.” Time (January 12, 1948), speaking of Truman’s election, wrote: “The Mugwumps of 1884, for much the same reason deserted James G. Blaine and helped elect Democrat Grover Cleveland.”

But mugwump wasn’t reserved solely for those who deserted Blaine for Cleveland. There were also Democrat mugwumps, Democrats who deserted Cleveland for Blaine. The Boston Journal (January 21, 1885) reported: “There is a row . . . between a Democrat and a mugwumpian Democrat.”  The Nation (April 14, 1887), gave mugwump a nonpartisan life: “The municipal election in Jacksonville, Fla., last week was another victory for nonpartisanship, and showed that Mugwumpism is growing in the South as well as in the West.”

Even the New York Times was called mugwumpian. The Voice (September 1, 1887), wrote: “Our esteemed Mugwumpian contemporary, the New York Times, is very solicitous for the Republicans to make concessions to the Prohibitionists.”

So mugwump, politically speaking, was first a disaffected Republican, became an Independent Republican, and ultimately moved to total independence. The definition became “a person who withdraws his support from any group or organization; an independent; a chronic complainer who doesn’t take sides.”

Seems to me that we need another political movement in America and I suggest we call it The Mugwump Party of America. So, my fellow, Mugwumpians, shall we gather at Independence Hall on July 4?

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